By GinaD & Joy

"I got something," Buck shouted before turning his attention back to the phone cradled between his shoulder and ear. "Uh huh, ... You sure? Yeah thanks, Merry Christmas to you , too." He hung up the phone turning to face the three men surrounding his desk. "Guy down in Purgatorio heard there's a big meet planned tonight between Dugan and some out of town guy. It's happening at a warehouse down in Commerce City at eight."

"Does the FBI know?" Nathan asked.

"No," Chris growled, "They're on their way to Colorado Springs following some hot tip."

"So we're on our own then." Josiah smiled grimly.

"Being a bit greedy there aren't you Sanchez?" Edwards, leader of team five said from the doorway. His team stood behind him grinning.

"You're supposed to be gone for the day," Chris said, lips twitching. "Thought Travis sent most everyone home."

"Well, my guys and I were talking about what a bad mood you and your team would be in if Standish went and did something stupid and didn't make it out today."

"So this is a self interest thing then," Buck snorted.

"Well, sure," Edwards shrugged. "Larabee in a bad mood is not something I want to see. Let's go get Standish back, before he does something stupid like missing Christmas."

The two teams filed into the conference room to plan for the coming night's action.

"Don't worry, Darling, the boys and I will be fine. ..."I love you, too, see you soon." Raine hung up the phone turning her attention to Mrs. Potter. "With the bust and everything, Nathan says they probably won't be home before eleven."

"I feel guilty about leaving," Gloria said looking toward the living room where JD and Vin had disappeared to after talking to Chris and Buck.

"Don't," Raine reached out to hug the other woman. "We'll be fine. Your family is waiting."

"I'll say a prayer at church tonight," Gloria promised as she left.

As she headed toward the living room Raine silently said one of her own.

"Where is he?" Chris growled as he scanned the men grouped outside of the warehouse again. Teams Seven and Five had been in position since six. Dugan and his men had arrived at eight and now after a half hour were showing signs of restlessness. There was an intense discussion going on between Dugan and his second, Fredricks. Chris figured they were getting ready to leave. If that happened he and the teams would have to move in. They couldn't let the truckload of guns Dugan had get out on the streets.

Sure enough Dugan's men began to bustle around packing up their samples. Swearing under his breath, Chris keyed his mic, "Alright everyone, we can't wait any longer, take them down."

The bust went down without a hitch. Within a half hour Dugan, his men and the guns were secured. Nathan and Buck were searching the warehouse for the fifth time looking for any trace of Kyle or Ezra. Chris was conferring with Edwards his face grim at the thought of going home without "Unca Ezra". When his phone rang he almost ignored it, not wanting to face the childish voice he expected to be there. But instead of Vin or JD he was surprised when the caller's voice was an adult male.

"Is this Agent in Charge, Larabee?"

"Who is this?"

"We've never met but I've heard a lot about you from Ian, or should I say Ezra."

"Martin." Everyone close enough to hear Chris' tone of voice froze.

"Very good, but then I'd expect nothing less from someone who commands Ian's respect. I don't believe I ever did."

"Where is he?" Chris growled into the phone. "If you've hurt him there is no where you can hide."

"Normally I'd laugh such a threat off, but from what I've seen tonight I truly do believe you."

"Where is he?" Chris demanded again while scanning the area trying to spot Kyle.

"He was right, you're quite tenacious." Martin's smoothly amused voice grated on Chris' nerves.

"You're a dead man."

The threat fell flat, Kyle's laughter accompanying the sound of an engine starting up. Chris covered his mouthpiece mouthing "plane" at Josiah who stepped away to use his cell. Chris' attention was pulled back to his phone.

"Agent Larabee, I want to thank you for helping me get my revenge."

"What do you mean revenge?" Chris felt his chest tighten.

"Fredricks was my second in command. I found out in prison that he betrayed me to the FBI. Oh, Standish came in and got the proof to bring me down, but they would never have gotten on to me if not for Fredricks."

"Where is Ezra?" Several of the agents standing nearby took a step back upon hearing the tone Chris used.

"I think you'll find the answers to the rest of your questions in Suite 857 at the Cherry Creek Sheraton. Merry Christmas, Mr. Larabee." The phone went dead. For a moment everyone froze as Chris stared furiously his phone.

"What did he say," Josiah finally asked. "Where is Ezra?"

"I don't know, all Martin gave me was a hotel room number."

"We got this," Edwards said, "Go find your man."

Quick 'Merry Christmas' and 'Good Lucks' were exchanged as Chris, Josiah and Nathan ran for their SUV where Buck waited.

Except for the occasional snap and pop of burning wood the room was disturbingly quiet. The only light came from said fire and a twinkling Christmas tree surrounded by a fence of childproof gates. Behind the gates a small group of Christmas presents waited patiently to be opened. On one of the couches two small forms slept having finally cried themselves out. Gently Raine covered them with a blanket before returning to her own chair. She shivered slightly pulling her woven wrap closer. If only she knew what was happening.

Quietly four men stood outside Suite 857 guns drawn. At Chris' nod, Nathan inserted a card key obtained from the front desk. In smooth practiced moves they went through the door covering the room. Broken glass covered one couch while the other sported a bullet hole. Using hand moves Chris directed Josiah to check the bathroom. At his, clear signal, they all moved toward the bedroom door. The sight of Ezra lying on the bed cut all of them. Nathan moved forward swiftly, checking for a pulse then opening Ezra's jacket to check for blood. The huge grin on his face was the best Christmas present they could have gotten.

"He's asleep."

"Asleep," Chris growled, only partially hiding his relief. Moving over to Ezra's other side he shook the southerner hard. "Wake up, Ezra."

Ezra's only response was to swat at his hand and roll over.

Nathan tried next with no better results. By kneeling down and yelling Chris managed to get an eye flutter and a mumble.

"I don't think our brother will be waking for a while," Josiah said, holding up a sheet of paper from the end of the bed. He proceeded to read out loud.

Agent Larabee,

Tell Ezra I'm sorry. I should have waited to tell him my plan until after he drank the scotch. He always was at his most dangerous when cornered. Don't worry he will be fine by Christmas morning. I gave him a small amount of a non-lethal sleeping agent.

I wish to point out that I have not really broken any laws since being released. I do this because I would rather not have the American law enforcement agencies after me. Most especially I do not want you or your team after me.

Tell Ezra I said goodbye.

Happy Holidays,

Kyle Martin.

PS: I left a present for the ATF in the closet with Ezra's luggage.

After Josiah finished reading they all looked at Chris who looked like he wasn't sure if he should be angry or relieved.

"Is it me or does that guy write just like Ezra?" Buck walked over to the open closet. Inside could be seen three pieces of expensive leather luggage and a briefcase. Buck pulled out the case tossing it to Josiah. He riffled through the contents then whistled.

"Looks like information on illegal activity all over the country."

"Nathan, do you think Ezra needs to go to the hospital?" Chris asked. He was thinking about the boys not a bunch of papers that could wait until after Christmas.

"Well," Nathan hesitated, then shook his head, "if Martin is telling the truth, he'd be better at the ranch sleeping this off."

Chris hung his head in thought for a moment. When he looked up there was a happy twinkle in his eye. "Alright, Josiah, you grab Ezra. Buck you have the briefcase. Nathan and I will take the luggage. Let's get home."

A few minutes later the lobby elevator opened. Josiah, with a softly snoring Ezra draped over his shoulder exited first. Chris and Nathan followed carrying the luggage with Buck last. As he passed the front desk he smiled at the female clerk. "Room 857 is open, darling. If anyone has any questions about the bullet hole in the couch tell them to call Orin Travis at the ATF after Christmas."

Silently the men entered the living room smiling at the peaceful scene. Raine had fallen asleep in the chair next to the couch her hand resting gently on Vin's head. With practiced precision Buck and Chris separated JD and Vin, each cuddling his son close and heading down the hall. Josiah nodded to Nathan and followed them, Ezra slung over his shoulder. Nathan watched them disappear then moved over to kiss Raine awake.

She smiled up at him sleepily, "Did you find Ezra?"

"Yes," Nathan pulled her up and into his arms. "It's a long story, but he's fine. He and Josiah are going to sleep in the boys' room. Buck and Chris took the boys in with them. You and I," he leaned in for a deeper kiss, "have the guest room."

Arm in arm they headed to bed.

Vin woke up disoriented. It took him a minute to remember what day it was and recognize his Dad's bedroom. Glancing over he relaxed slightly at the sight of Chris sleeping next to him. Moving slowly he slid out of bed and crossed to the door. Out in the corridor he paused, trying to decide what room Uncle Ezra would be in. Still tip toeing Vin crept up to the guest bedroom door. Heart pounding he eased the door open enough to glance in.

"Whatcha doin?"

JD's innocent question startled Vin so badly he almost slammed the door. Closing it carefully he turned, "Shhhhh."

JD frowned, "I don't have to."

Sighing Vin explained, "I'm looking for Uncle Ezra. Remember, Dad said they'd bring him back."

"Oh, was he in there?"

"No, it's Uncle Nathan and Aunt Raine." Vin started down the hall towards his bedroom. JD followed along.

Vin eased the door open to their room. Together he and JD peered inside. Being quiet was forgotten when they spotted the occupant of JD's bed.

"Unca Ezra!" "Unca Ezra!" Two, very happy tornadoes headed toward the bed.

Since his last memory was of Kyle with a gun Ezra woke up ready to fight. Luckily Josiah had woken up when the door opened and was ready for just that. In one smooth move he jumped off the top bunk in time to grab each boy by the waist before they reached the southerner. It only took Ezra a moment to orient himself. As soon as Josiah saw Ezra's eyes clear he let go of the boys. They fell onto Ezra creating a laughing, shouting, happy pile.

Awakened by the noise everyone else crowded into the doorway. For a time it was chaos with Merry Christmases and happy voices filling up the room. JD and Vin were wearing themselves out running back and forth between all the adults and Ezra. Finally Chris scooped Vin up on one of his circles. Giving a whistle to draw the others attention he said, "Shall we move this party to the family room?"

Laughing and talking everyone headed down the hall. Raine, Josiah and Buck took over the kitchen sending Chris to start a fire in the fireplace and Nathan to turn on the tree and remove the fence. All Ezra had to do was sit on the couch and try to answer all the questions two excited nephews could come up with.

It didn't take long for Raine to slide breakfast casseroles she'd made the night before into the oven. Josiah made coffee and hot cocoa while Buck laid out pastries and Christmas cookies. Soon everyone had a drink and a sweet. Nathan also slipped Ezra a couple of aspirin.

The small pile of presents around the tree had mushroomed into a tower. Buck delegated JD and Vin as his helpers. He would read off a name then hand it to a boy who delivered it at a run to the owner. Once all the presents were sorted everyone took turns opening a package.

There was much oooing and ahhing, thank yous and laughter over the various gifts. But as the pile of discarded wrapping paper grew Vin got quieter and quieter. Because he was sandwiched between them, only Ezra and Chris really noticed. When Ezra started to unwrap JD's gift they felt Vin go stiff. Ezra shot Chris a questioning glance and received a reassuring nod. JD's bolo was fully admired with Ezra assuring him that the leopard agate was perfect. Vin stayed tense as the gift opening circled back around to Ezra.

When it did, Chris nudged Vin handing him a box and whispering, "Here's Ezra gift from us. Careful, it's heavy."

Vin's eyes widened a bit as he took the box. He stared into Chris' eyes for a moment before turning to hand the box to Ezra, a shy smile on his face. From the various looks exchanged between adults Ezra was aware there was something more going on than the opening of a gift. He hefted it with one hand, "Rather heavy, hmm I wonder what it is?"

"Open it!" JD shouted from Buck's lap.

Winking at Vin, Ezra began to carefully pick at the tape. Then with a laugh, he tore the paper off. The plain brown box inside gave no hint of the contents. Opening the box, Ezra stopped chuckling and his eyes widened. Reaching in he pulled out what looked like a piece of square silver. Vin stood up to lean against Ezra's shoulder so he, too, could see the gift.

"Consider that your Christmas and house warming gift." Chris said.

"What is it?" Raine asked.

Coming out of his stupor Ezra turned the square so everyone could see it. "It's a door knocker." The front of the square was engraved to look like an ace of spades. The curved handle used for knocking had a spade on the end sized to match the etched spade. Handing it to Buck, he wrapped an arm around Vin's shoulder. "Thank you, Vin, I love it."

When Vin seemed to shrink under the praise hanging his head, Ezra quirked an eyebrow at Chris. Before the older man could come up with anything JD piped up.

"But Vin didn't get you a gift. We look-ed and look-ed and -" Buck's hand muffled any more but the damage was done.

Twisting free of Ezra's arm Vin ran out of the room. Chris and Ezra both followed. They found Vin in his bedroom laying on JD's bunk his shoulders shaking. Setting down at the head of the bed Chris pulled Vin's head onto his leg and started stroking his hair. Ezra sat facing Chris close enough so he could rub Vin's back.

In a matter of fact tone Chris said, "Vin had some trouble finding you the right gift. I put both our names on the door plate but didn't get a chance to tell him."

"I know it's hard sometimes to find just the thing." Ezra said. "Just spending Christmas with everyone is the best gift I could have received."

Vin rolled to face Ezra, his eyes were sad but dry. "I had a gift, but I couldn't finish it."

"Well, that's alright," Ezra smiled at him. "We can finish it together."

Sitting up Vin rubbed his eyes, "No, we can't, it's broken. I can't find the last piece."

"Do you mean the puzzle?" Chris asked. When Vin nodded, Chris explained. "We can't find the last piece. Buck and I looked everywhere."

"Ah, that is a problem." Tilting Vin's head up so he could look at him, Ezra said, "Why don't we go down and have breakfast? Maybe with some sustenance in us we can think of something. Okay?"


Vin cheered up enough to join in the fun of breakfast. When it was over Ezra, Raine and the boys were told to relax while the others cleaned up and started preparations for a late lunch. Slouching down in the recliner Ezra watched JD and Vin play with their new toys. He had assured Vin he would continue to think about where the puzzle piece might be. That coupled with the magic of Christmas and having all his family around had been enough to turn Vin into a normal happy kid. He and JD were playing with their new Matchbox cars. Vin's favorite was a blue jeep that already had a couple of scuffs from climbing the side of the rock fireplace. JD had several cars lined up and was pretending to jump them with his motorbike.

Ezra thought about Vin's dilemma. He understood that the seven-year-old had difficulty choosing a gift for him, and that part of the problem was that Vin was frightened for his safety and perhaps just a little angry with him for going undercover. Knowing his nephew's heart, he could easily see the guilt Vin was feeling, no matter how misplaced it was. He had tried to convey to Vin that the best gift was his nephew's love, but nothing less than a tangible gift was acceptable to the little blond.

He thought about the puzzle. If Buck and Chris had searched for the piece, he knew there was little hope of finding it, but sometimes it just took looking at things from another perspective. He figured they would look in all the obvious places - around the table where they worked on the puzzle, under the sofa where the puzzle box was stored. So if the missing piece wasn't there, where could it be?

He frowned hoping that one of the pups hadn't eaten it. Maybe it had gotten caught on the sleeve of a sweater like one had when he had helped with the puzzle. If that were the case, it could have been carried anywhere in the house, but most likely in this room where they spent the majority of their time. Discreetly his slid his hand down into the side of the seat of the recliner sincerely hoping he wouldn't find any leftover food or anything else of a dubious nature. Lots of crumbs but no puzzle piece.

He put the foot of the recliner down and moved over to the sofa.

"What'ya doin', Uncle Ezra?" asked JD.

Ezra was stuck. He didn't want to draw Vin's attention back to the puzzle, but he didn't want to lie to JD either.

"I thought perhaps the puzzle piece may have been caught on someone's sleeve and fallen into the furniture," he explained.

"Can we help?" asked JD.

"Certainly," said Ezra. He'd prefer not to dig through the cushions anyway. He flipped up one of the cushions.

"Hey!" said JD, "I found a penny!"

He showed the shiny silver coin to Ezra and Raine who was still seated on the end of the couch. She stood and moved to the side so the boys could search.

"That's a corter, JD," said Vin.

"How many pennies is that?" asked JD.

"A whole bunch," said Vin as he eagerly flipped another cushion.

"What'ya find, Vin?" asked JD.

"An old cookie," said the disappointed boy showing JD a piece of cookie.

Both boys dove for the third and last cushion. Between the two of them, they came up with another quarter, a nickel, a penny and a dog biscuit.

But no puzzle piece.

"Don't give up," Ezra encouraged as he moved to the second recliner. He slid his fingers along the crack at the back of the seat cushion. He smiled.

"What?" asked Vin seeing the smile.

Ezra pulled out the missing piece.

"You found it!" Vin squealed with glee, accepting the piece as Ezra handed it to him. "Thank you, Uncle Ezra! Dad! Dad! Uncle Ezra found it."

Chris came in from the kitchen, drying his hands on the dishtowel. "What's up?"

Vin held up the piece. "Uncle Ezra found it. Can we get the puzzle back out again?"

Chris smiled at the delight on his son's face. "Sure. Just give me a minute to finish up."

Vin turned to Ezra and hugged him tightly. "I'm so glad you're back, Uncle Ezra, and I'm so glad you found the missing piece."

"Where'd he find it?" asked Buck.

"In your chair, Da," said JD.

Buck shook his head. "We searched there."

"Sounds like we've had our little Christmas miracle," said Josiah patting Buck's shoulder as he moved past him.

Ten minutes later they had cleared the table enough to bring out the puzzle box and open it. The entire family watched as Vin placed the last piece into position. His genuine smile was the only present any of them needed.

He looked up at Ezra. "You'll still help me glue it?"

Ezra nodded. "Certainly. I don't have the supplies here, but I can get them in a couple of days."

"Good, because this is your forever picture," said Vin.

"Mine?" asked Ezra. "You worked so hard on it, I thought you'd want to keep it here."

Vin shook his head. "You can put it on the wall at your new house."

Ezra smiled. "That is a fine idea. Thank you, Vin."

Chris opened the closet and pulled a plastic bag down off the shelf. "There's one more present, for all of us," he said. "I didn't wrap it, well, because I didn't think Vin would want to do another."

He handed the bag to Vin.

Vin looked inside and smiled.

"What is it?" asked JD. Vin handed him the bag and let him pull the box out. "A puzzle! We gots another puzzle!"

"Chris?" asked Buck, remembering Chris's initial reluctance to work on a jigsaw puzzle.

"I know it took us a long time," Chris explained, "But I really enjoyed all the times we worked together and talked."

Vin nodded.

"So, I was a little sad when we finished the puzzle, or almost finished it," Chris added. "I thought it might be a nice tradition to continue."

Vin hugged Chris and JD cheered.

"How about if we start this one New Year's Eve?"

"That sounds like a perfect evening," said Buck.

It was a few days after the New Year and Ezra sat in a leather recliner in front of a roaring fire in the den of his new home. Displayed prominently above the fireplace was grand horse on a mountain top. A jigsaw puzzle put together by loving hands and glued and mounted to make a "forever picture."

The last few months had been tumultuous for everyone in his unique family. There had been the unfortunate incident with the pups and the skunk, and heaven forbid - the lice. His skin crawled just to think of that, but it took his breath away to realize how close they had come to losing JD. The biggest struggle being his own quest to find where he fit after the unfortunate shooting - his doubts and fears and the pain of recovery. But there had been many good times as well. Chris was making amends with his parents. Vin and JD were officially adopted and legally forever family. The boys had "officially" adopted their uncles. Even Peter and Maude had been welcomed into the family.

The picture on his mantle was far more valuable than any painting he could find in an art gallery. Each piece represented painstaking effort and love. It had been a tool to bring a family together and an activity that opened the doors for communication. But even more than that, it was a perfect illustration of how pieces of different shapes and sizes came together to become whole.

"Good Lord, I sound like Josiah," Ezra said with a smile as he lowered his footrest and picked up his glass from the side table.

He carried the glass to the kitchen and rinsed it, putting it in the dishwasher. Tomorrow was a new day, with new trials and adventures. But they were ready. All the pieces meshed together to form a family and together they would deal with whatever was to come.

The End

Index - Puzzling Out Life's Little Lessons

Comments: GinaD & Joy

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